It is 1971, and the Ganguli family has moved outside of Boston, where they are the only Bengalis in a small, typically Northeastern university town. Ashoke has been hired as an assistant professor of electrical engineering, with his own office and a shared secretary, an elderly widow whom he cannot help but compare to his own mother. For his mother, however, this job would be a shameful one, far from her grandchildren. Ashoke loves his job, reveling in his new title. Every Friday he heads to the library to read the international papers and enjoys seeing his son’s name in the Russian literature section.
In some ways this suburban town is even more foreign to the Gangulis, as it is less multicultural than Boston. Ashoke is thriving, however, as his hopes for life in America begin to yield fruit. Although some things, like the position of his office’s secretary, still seem wrong to him, he is content in his new life, and returns to his childhood habit of reading.
For Ashima the move is even more drastic than the one from Calcutta to Cambridge. In the suburbs, there is no more opportunity for independent shopping and walking in the city. The new town has no real sidewalks and no public transportation. She continues to mix her pregnancy snack, uninterested in learning to drive. Being a foreigner, she has come to realize, is like being permanently pregnant—“a perpetual wait, a constant burden,” which elicits curiosity, pity, and respect from strangers.
The agency that Ashima had found by venturing into the city with Gogol is no more. She is now essentially trapped in their new home, without access to transportation, and so she returns to the comfort of her traditional snack. This comparison of the immigrant experience to pregnancy is a compelling one – a constant, uncomfortable expectation, and one which implies the question of what, exactly, will emerge from this experience.
When Ashima does leave the house, it is to wander around the university campus with Gogol, or to sell homemade samosas at a once-weekly bake sale with other professors’ wives. When Gogol turns four, she drops him off at the nursery three mornings a week, and misses him desperately in the hours that she is alone. To pass the time, she reads or writes letters in the public library, sometimes wandering into the children’s room where a photo of Gogol is pinned to the bulletin board.
In the hours she is without Gogol, Ashima is adrift, lost without access to her family in India or in America. Her weekly interactions with the other professors’ wives are also telling – in a way she is defined by the food she makes and by her cultural background. Gogol is at home here, though, with his photo pinned up in the public library.
Two years later, the couple have saved enough money to move out of the university apartment and buy a house in the town. They visit a number of houses occupied by Americans with plastic wading pools, where shoes are worn inside and pets roam the house. Eventually they buy a new, two-story colonial house and move their things across town in a U-Haul, surprised at how much they have accumulated since crossing the ocean with a single suitcase each. They prepare the house, taking photographs of Gogol posing in each room to send back to India.
These houses seem so foreign to Ashima and Ashoke - in small but significant ways - while so normal to the average American reader. The lives they have created in America are already present in the accumulated stuff that will be moved into their new home. Showing this place to their family back home is essential to their moving process.
They hang a painting by Ashima’s father in the living room. Gogol has his own room, filled with American toys bought at yard sales. Many of their things are bought at yard sales, a concept that had initially struck Ashima as shameful, but which Ashoke points out that even his chairman at the university embraces. The yard is still unfinished, and some of Gogol’s first memories are made playing on its uneven, rocky ground before grass is planted.
Ashima’s deceased father’s presence here is important to what makes their family function – even if he will never visit. The American toys that fill Gogol’s room, and its separation from his parents, begins the process of increasing independence that will lead to Gogol feeling, at times, that his own parents are foreign and strange.
In the evenings the family goes on exploratory drives around the small town, on rural back roads, or to the beach. The back seat of their car is still sheathed in plastic, the ashtrays still sealed. They arrive at the beach when most families have already left, and Gogol digs in the sand or watches, rapt, as his father flies a kite, or his mother laughingly steps into the ocean a few inches.
The special care taken with new purchases is, Lahiri suggests, a typically Indian approach to things that, to them, are more precious than they are to their American neighbors. By now it’s almost expected that the family’s beach time, which is so peaceful and idyllic, is also somewhat out-of-sync with the rest of the families.
The August that Gogol turns five, Ashima becomes pregnant again. Bedridden and nauseated once more, she spends much of her days watching American daytime television or reading to Gogol, educating him about his Indian heritage or teaching him to recite Bengali poetry. She is always careful to make him watch Sesame Street as well, to keep up with his English lessons at nursery. At night Ashoke cooks, a strange sight for Gogol, and the two eat together while Ashima is in her bedroom avoiding the smell. Gogol has learned by now how to eat properly with his hands, but does not want to eat without his mother. His father is firm, however, reminding him that when he was Gogol’s age “he ate tin.”
Here, again, is a clear example of the mixing of American and Bengali cultures that forms Gogol’s childhood. At the same time that Ashima encourages Gogol’s discovery of Bengali poetry, she also forces him to watch Sesame Street to learn English. The role reversal his parents undertake while Ashima is bedridden is strange to Gogol, since their normal roles are, in keeping with tradition, so set. Ashoke’s reminder that when he was Gogol’s age “he ate tin” is a reminder to his son of the difference in their origins.
That September, of 1973, Gogol is driven to kindergarten for the first time by his father. He starts a week late, having stayed home sick, not eager to leave home and begin life at this new school. His parents have decided that as he begins school he must begin to be called by his good name, which they have finally chosen: Nikhil, meaning “he who is entire, encompassing all.” Ashima consented when Ashoke suggested it, still secretly heartbroken by the disappearance of her grandmother’s letter. Gogol is not happy about the new name, even though his parents assure him that it will only be for the outside world, and they press him to practice its spelling.
This entry into school marks another pivotal moment in Gogol’s development. His parents’ decision to give him the name Nikhil is, by this point, only frightening and disorienting for him. The name’s meaning—“entire, all-encompassing”—is a hopeful way of thinking about the ways that Gogol’s life spans two different worlds—but in reality, this straddling of two cultures will lead to more division than unity in Gogol’s life.
They are greeted by the principal, Candace Lapidus, who assures them that missing the first week is not a problem, and asks whether they know the other two Indian children at the school—but they do not. She asks Gogol how old she is, calling him by his new name, Nikhil, although she pronounces it differently than his parents have, but he does not respond. To spur his response, Ashoke resorts to speaking to his son in English for the first time, but forgets and calls him Gogol. When Mrs. Lapidus notices the name, she asks Ashoke why his legal name is different from the one they have written down on the registration forms, and she is unimpressed by his explanation. After Ashoke leaves, Mrs. Lapidus asks Gogol which name he prefers, and when he responds that he would rather be called Gogol, she tears up his registration to write a new one.
The principal, like Mr. Wilcox at the hospital, is another representative of American bureaucracy who in some way thwarts the plans of Ashoke and Ashima. Mrs. Lapidus’s disregard for the couple’s wishes, although perhaps understandable given Gogol’s reluctance to be called Nikhil, also indicates that she does not take the Gangulis very seriously, and is in some ways more swayed by the “American” Gogol, despite his young age. This is a phenomenon that will follow him and his parents later in the novel. The general confusion around naming, and the division between a good name and pet name, will continue to haunt Gogol as well.
Gogol’s class is filled with children who go by nicknames—Andy, Sandy, Billy, Lizzy—and is very different from the disciplined schools his parents remember. The only ritual is the pledge of allegiance to the American flag each morning. Mrs. Lapidus sends a letter home with Gogol explaining that because of his preference he will have the name “Gogol” at school. Both parents to wonder why their own preference means nothing, but neither wishes to press the issue, and so Gogol remains Gogol. He writes this name over and over, on every assignment, as a signature at the bottom of every art piece, and in the front cover of his textbooks.
Ashima and Ashoke’s inability to push back against Mrs. Lapidus’s decision is not something that an average American family would have felt – but the Gangulis are less able to express their resistance, or at least feel less entitled to. These small defeats add up, in the life of an immigrant. All of the nicknames, typically American names, that surround Gogol, and his pledge of allegiance to the flag, foretell the ways that this environment will further distance him from his parents.
Gogol’s sister is born in May, and this time the labor is quick. Gogol is left at home with a neighbor and then their friend Maya Nandi, whom he refers to as “Maya Mashi” as if she were his aunt. He draws a family portrait with the new baby, labeling it with all their names, although he does not know the baby’s. The next day he is brought to the hospital to visit them, and he sees his sister, the only baby there with a shock of black hair. He gives his mother the drawing and she tells him the baby’s name: Sonali. His parents had prepared beforehand this time, with options for a boy or girl, and had learned that pet names could cause confusion or be misinterpreted by schools, so she will have only this one name.
The name “Maya Mashi” would be the traditional Indian term for “Aunt Maya,” highlighting the ways in which these Bengali immigrants become family to one another through necessity. Gogol’s drawing emphasizes the importance of naming in families. His parents’ newfound understanding that one must prepare a name beforehand shows that they have learned from their experience with Gogol—and Sonali will benefit as a result, not having a “pet name” to haunt her all her life.
Over time, Sonali does develop a nickname—Sonia—which gives her links to Europe, Russia, and South America. As she becomes more responsive, Gogol enjoys playing with her, and helps his mother to care for her. He entertains Sonia in the back of the car on Saturday evenings, when the Gangulis head to the weekly gatherings of Bengali migrants. Most of them have now moved into homes in the suburbs like the Gangulis. Children play together or watch T.V. downstairs at these events, talking to one another in English while their parents speak in Bengali overhead. At Sonia’s annaprasan she, unlike Gogol, refuses to eat anything, and when offered the three objects, she plays in the dirt while threatening to eat the dollar bill. One guest says, “this one is the true American.”
Sonia’s nickname is much more forgiving than Gogol’s, as it actually confers more American “normalcy,” rather than less. The bond between brother and sister is important and will continue to grow, as these second-generation Indian-Americans share their experiences of both Indian and American culture and the unique blend of both that forms their identity. Sonia is perhaps one step further away from India even than Gogol, since she doesn’t eat the traditional dishes at all, and rejects the annaprasan ceremony in general.
At the same time that the couple’s New England life becomes more full of Bengali friends, the life that they have left behind dwindles, as family members—those who still call Ashoke and Ashima by their pet names “Monu” and “Mithu”—pass away. They are left parentless within a decade of their arrival, and Gogol and Sonia are awoken by the news in the middle of night, embarrassed by their parents’ tears over people they barely know. Even those who are still alive seem invisible, because they are so distant. Their visits to Calcutta every few years feel like a dream, and with their return to the relatively large house in Massachusetts, they feel like the only Gangulis in the world again, certain that no one from home will ever see this other world that is now theirs.
As their families back home fall away in ways that Sonia and Gogol, who have never or rarely met these relatives, cannot identify with, a piece of Ashoke and Ashima’s identity is also lost – as symbolized by the slow disappearance of their pet names. The distance is confounding for them, and loneliness is their reality – a loneliness that is slowly filled by the makeshift family of Bengali immigrants who gather regularly in a rotating series of houses. Although the Gangulis can visit home, it is much more difficult for their Indian relatives to travel here.
Increasingly, to an outside observer, there is little difference between the Gangulis and their neighbors. They buy a barbecue and gardening supplies—always consulting their Bengali friends for guidance—and learn to roast turkey, even if it is spiced with Indian flavors. For Sonia and Gogol’s sake they take up the ceremonies of Easter, build snowmen, and celebrate Christmas in the American way. The children are much more impressed by these holidays, at which they receive presents and are let off from school, than by the Indian ones they are dragged to two Saturdays a year, in halls rented by the Bengali community, where they throw marigold petals at cardboard effigies.
Slowly the Gangulis are adapting to the American world they now inhabit, even as their ties to their old world are tragically severed by distance or death. For Sonia and Gogol, on the other hand, America is much more familiar and present for them than the Bengali world in which their parents grew up. The “cardboard effigies” of the holidays their parents organize cannot compare to the normalized American holidays, which are accommodated for in the calendar and celebrated by all their peers.
Ashoke and Ashima give in to America in other ways as well. Although Ashima sticks to her traditional clothing, Ashoke relinquishes tailored suits in favor of readymade, and no longer wears a tie to the university. He trades fountain pens for ballpoint, buys packs of six Bic razors, and even removes his wristwatch. They allow Sonia and Gogol to fill their cart with American groceries, and once a week Ashima cooks an American dinner—often Hamburger Helper—as a treat.
Ashoke and Ashima clearly adapt differently, with Ashoke being more open to the new world they inhabit, changing his habits in small but significant ways. Sonia and Gogol are agents of this change, ambassadors for the American tastes that their exposure to friends at school and advertisements on television have conditioned them to enjoy.
At the same time, the couple make an effort to expose their children to Indian culture, taking them to the movies when the Apu trilogy is playing, or to a Kathakali dance or sitar performance. Gogol is sent to Bengali language and culture lessons on Saturday in the home of one of their friends. They are unsettled by their children’s perfect American accents. Gogol resents being made to learn the Bengali alphabet at these lessons, with their limited materials on Indian history—designed for five-year-olds and printed on paper that he notices resembles the toilet paper at his school—since it makes him miss a drawing class at the library every other week.
The meager resources that are cobbled together by the Bengali community to sustain their culture are, like the cardboard effigies at the Gangulis’ makeshift holiday ceremonies, unable to compete with their children’s experience in American schools. That Gogol and Sonia’s accents are perfectly American is a further sign of their separation from the generation of their parents, who will forever have that marker of their foreignness.
Young Gogol has no problem with his name. He recognizes it in signs saying “Go Left, Go Right, Go Slow,” he learns from his father that it belongs to a famous Russian author, and he has learned to help substitute teachers with its pronunciation before they ask. The other kids teased him at first, but this has worn off, and now it is a normal part of his life at school. His last name, Ganguli, is still odd, however. He was astonished when, on a visit to Calcutta, he saw a page full of Gangulis in the phonebook, and he wanted to tear it out as a souvenir—an idea that made his cousin laugh. Gogol sees it everywhere in Calcutta, and his father explains that it is a remnant of British colonialism, an Anglicized form of the real Indian name Gangopadhyay.
Although we see the ways in which Gogol has adapted himself to the experience of correcting substitutes—a relatable experience for anyone with a foreign-sounding name—the ways that he stands out from his classmates because of his name foreshadow the sense of isolation Gogol will feel later on because of it. This isolation is reversed when, in Calcutta, he sees this page of Gangulis in the phonebook. Here he would be more “normal,” even if Ganguli, too, has been changed from its first Indian origins.
Ashoke puts their family name in gold letters on their mailbox, and one morning Gogol sees that someone has vandalized it, changing it so that it reads GANGRENE. He is sickened, feeling somehow that this act is directed more at his parents than at he and his sister. Gogol is aware by now of the cashiers who smirk at his parents’ accents, preferring to talk to him instead, as if his parents were deaf. But his father shrugs off the insult, and they drive to the store to replace the letters.
This instance of local racism, based in the Ganguli family name, is damaging for the young Gogol, even as Ashoke shrugs it off – perhaps suggesting that multiple “microaggressions” like this have led Ashoke to develop a tolerance for the things he cannot combat. The cashiers’ smirking ways are part of this series of microaggressions, and show the divide between the “American” Gogol and his parents.
One day, when Gogol is eleven, his name’s peculiarity is highlighted when the class takes a field trip, first to the historical home of a poet, and then to a graveyard where the writer is buried. The students are asked to make rubbings of the inscriptions with newsprint and crayons, and they run off in search of their own names. Gogol knows his will not be among them, knows that he will be cremated as he has seen in Calcutta, that no headstone will ever bear his name in America. He walks from grave to grave, uncovering names that he realizes are odd and rare now (just like his, notes a chaperone): Abijah, Anguish, Peregrine, Ezekiel, Uriah. He had never thought before that names could die over time.
While this field trip into the presumed past of the American students in Gogol’s class highlights his difference from them on the one hand, it is also comforting for Gogol to find that the odd names of these early American pioneers –who were immigrants themselves, though they are rarely labeled as such – resemble his name in their rarity. Gogol is enthused by this monument to America’s past, which he now is able to feel a direct connection to – even if he regrets that he himself, because of Hindu cremation rituals, will never have his name permanently engraved like these.
Ashima is horrified at the nature of this field trip—for her, death is not something trivial to be played with. Only in America—a phrase that is becoming common with her—would people make grave rubbings like these. She refuses to hang them on the fridge, the first time she has done so with Gogol’s artwork, but he in turn refuses to throw them away. Gogol feels an attachment to these Puritans, the first immigrants to America, and their odd names. He hides them away in his room, where they will remain for years to come.
Ashima’s shock at what Gogol is being taught in school reveals how her son’s education and development is, in many ways, totally beyond her control. Gogol’s decision to disobey his mother and keep the rubbings illustrates just how important that strange sense of connection to the names of those early immigrants is for him.